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Archive for November, 2013

The DOE’s networks face a new day

Here’s a good question for the dawn of a new city administration: Did the CSDs, the ROCs, the SSOs, the ISCs and CFNs — all these successive Bloomberg-era school management structures — actually improve school management?

If the acronyms are a puzzle, don’t worry. Most of them don’t exist anymore.

The Boston-based Parthenon Group, the management consultants that gave the DOE lots of high-priced advice on how to help struggling schools (which the DOE ignored), has gingerly taken up this question.

In “An Assessment of the New York City Department of Education School Support Structure” [PDF], conducted at the request of the DOE, the Parthenon Group reviews the many iterations of management science that eventually became the CFNs, the Children First Networks. These make up the uneven, rather slippery, mechanism through which the DOE now manages the schools. And in cautious, exquisitely balanced language, the Parthenon Group raises deep concerns about the shortcomings of these “reforms.”

The networks are groupings of about 30 schools each that sign on to get “support” from one of 57 nonprofits, universities or former DOE administrators. CFNs were construed as a way to deliver educational and administrative services to principals without actually supervising the schools. They were a tool of principal “empowerment” under Chancellor Joel Klein’s fractured management vision. Principals, whether they are neophytes or veterans, get to hire and fire their “supervisor,” the CFN network, though they have to choose one and pay for it.

So, what does Parthenon find?

First, it finds that while there are some strong and innovative networks, there are others “whose leaders and teams cannot effectively manage the complexity of the job.”

Talent across the 57 network teams is stretched fairly thin. “There are fewer people but the jobs have become more challenging,” in the words of the report, and it has been hard for many networks “to earn authority and trust based on merit.” Maybe some functions should be re-centralized, the report suggests. Maybe the DOE should offer higher pay to network team members to attract more talent. Or maybe networks should themselves get together and hire some outside expertise. In blunter language, many are floundering.

Second, the network structure doesn’t differentiate between schools that are struggling and those that are doing well.

There is limited oversight of struggling schools, the report finds, “offering too much latitude to principals who will not be able to figure out how to improve on their own” and too much interference in high-performing schools. “It is clear that the [network] strategy cannot represent the DOE’s only mechanism for school improvement,” Parthenon concludes.

It suggests putting the weakest 15 percent of schools under superintendents with renewed powers, who will direct curriculum and instruction. That old superintendent structure in the community school districts was famously ripe for abuse, but Parthenon finds the nebulous supervision-by-consent of the network structure unequal to the task, at least in some situations.

Third, the current CFNs isolate school support from the input of local communities, especially in the case of struggling schools.
“(P)arents in the current system sometimes feel that they are left without a clear channel to seek resolution of issues,” the report says. (Sometimes is putting it mildly.) Especially in struggling schools, the report finds, parents have tried repeatedly to warn administrators but have not gotten a hearing. Nor do networks readily tap into the knowledge that families and communities have. The Parthenon Group finds it “hard to assess how frequently this kind of breakdown actually occurs.” But parents would tell them: it happens a lot.

Fourth, the Parthenon Group finds that “perhaps the most powerful support the DOE could provide for schools would be to relieve the numerous demands on a principal’s time.”

Bureaucracy and “layers of federal and state regulations” eat up school time. The DOE should improve business processes, streamline regulations and change the culture, the report says, but leaders who can do this are hard to find. The ones who can are stretched too thin.

What are the implications of these findings?

The Parthenon Group finds that principals like their newfound autonomy in hiring, budgeting and curriculum. But we know many principals are drowning in paperwork imposed by the new accountability and cannot provide instructional leadership.

Management does not get better simply by withdrawing. The DOE cut its school support budget by 32 percent from 2005 to 2011. “If anything the emphasis on efficiency within school support went almost too far,” the report hedges.

There’s little question that it did. While expectations were piled on students and teachers, a lean, voluntary and too-often inept management was put in place — but not exactly in charge — of the schools. This allowed the DOE to say that it wasn’t responsible for class size reduction, for example, or for supporting struggling schools. Principals were. The networks were. The report finds many of these networks were not up to the task. What’s worse, the DOE abdicated responsibility.

What do we need from the next administration? We certainly need a new management system. More support for struggling schools is essential. More expert, seasoned leadership would be welcome. But what exactly should this look like? It must be one of the many things keeping Bill de Blasio up at night.

The price of testing

Miss Education is in her second year teaching 4th grade in the Bronx. This year, she’s found herself deeply affected by the challenge of seeing her students struggle with standardized tests.

In early October, I had to administer yet another pre-assessment to my students. I understood that my students were starting to feel frustrated and uncomfortable with all of this pre-testing going on, so I really tried to make it as painless as possible. I explained what had been explained to me. I said, “These tests will not affect your grade; the purpose is to help me, as your teacher, see how much information you know.” I explained that the results of these tests would help me be a better teacher because I’d know what I need to focus on with them.

The test was 90 minutes. It had five constructed response questions — all of which were worded in a way that was more complex than necessary, making the questions confusing and even awkward to read. Nonetheless, my students trusted me, so they accepted the pre-tests with an eager smile and a look of consent.

Ten minutes in, I started to see a lot of worried and insecure faces. After some more time, I heard paper rustling as if someone were madly flipping through the pages of a book. I scanned the classroom and noticed Adam. Adam was flipping through his test aggressively. His face was pale. Next thing I knew, Adam was waving the whole test packet in the air violently.  I nearly ran over to him to intervene.

As soon as I put my hands on his shoulder, Adam stopped waving the paper. “Hey, hey, hey! Relax, relax,” I said. I told him to stop and take a breather, to put his head down and take a break. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he put the paper aside.

Adam is 9 years old.  An unnecessarily stressed 9-year-old. I felt so angry with myself and with the whole system. What are people thinking? Why am I allowing myself to be used as a tool to impose these ridiculous and overwhelming tests on my students for the sake of statistics? I felt extremely guilty and sad about Adam. I wonder how many of those “intellectuals”  who created these tests and these methods have actually had experiences with 9-year-olds.

This whole situation made me question and reassess my role in the classroom.  These tests are not an accurate measure of student intelligence or learning. I know many people feel the same. I just don’t know why our public education officials don’t do anything about it.

Charter execs: Pay up!

[This editorial originally appeared in the November 14 issue of the New York Teacher.]

You would think that if Success Academy Charter Schools can pay Eva Moskowitz a salary of $475,244, they could also afford to pay rent for their space in public school buildings.

And, if Village Academies charter network can pay $499,146 to its CEO, Deborah Kenny, shouldn’t it also be able to afford rent for its use of public school space?

Moskowitz and Kenny are just two of the 16 charter school honchos in New York City whose pay exceeds that of Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the Daily News reported recently.

Kenny’s network has two schools. Walcott oversees 1,600. But Kenny earns more than twice the $212,614 paid to the chancellor.

Does that make sense?

It makes even less sense that Moskowitz is among the charter school operators leading a campaign to maintain their rent-free spaces in our public schools.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has rightly called for charging rent to those charter schools that can afford it.

That is only fair. Charter schools have been getting a free ride under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign. And public schools have suffered the consequences.

When charter schools co-locate in public school buildings, they are often able to afford spiffy new furniture, brand-new technology and a refurbishment of their classrooms. That can clash sharply with the unrenovated areas of the buildings used by traditional district schools.

Having charter schools pay rent would create a more level playing field. And it would increase the resources available for traditional public schools.

We have public schools operating classrooms out of trailers for years on end. Other schools are bursting at the seams from overcrowding. Many need repair and renovation.

So, to charter school operators who have been using public school space rent-free, we have two words: Pay up.

A new day

[This editorial originally appeared in the November 14 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Pat yourselves on the back, UFT members.

There is reason for pride and celebration. On Nov. 5, the people were heard. We have a new mayor, comptroller, public advocate and many new City Council members who support our schools and respect UFT members.

Their election came in large part from your work, your votes, your voice.

The UFT made the crucial difference in a number of key races, including Scott Stringer’s victory in the primary for comptroller.

That was a critical election for us because the comptroller serves as custodian and investment adviser to our pension funds. Your money is in those retirement funds. We need a comptroller whose judgment we trust.

In the City Council races, too, UFT members’ votes and work helped bring victory to a number of excellent candidates, including Mark Treyger, a civics teacher and UFT delegate from New Utrecht HS.

The most important election you helped win, of course, was for mayor.

When Bill de Blasio takes office on Jan. 1, our city will for the first time in its history have a sitting mayor with a child in the public schools.

As de Blasio said at Teacher Union Day, he respects educators. He wants to work on improving morale in the schools so that the teachers and staff who are there now stay.

The UFT will hold him to that.

We have much work ahead. After 12 years of Mayor Bloomberg’s destructive rule over our schools, we have to rebuild our school system.

But UFT members have always shown they are up to whatever challenge they face.

For now, we need to grit our teeth and get through the final two months of our lame-duck mayor.

Take a moment, though, to savor your victory.